Heritage and History of Kauai: The Oldest of the Hawaiian Islands

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and is located in the South Pacific. It was formed through volcanic activity, much like with the other Hawaiian islands, and the peaks of Kawaikini and Wai’ale’ale are all that remain of the volcano that created Kauai. Kauai is believed to be around 5.1 million years old, outpacing the next oldest island of Oahu by 2-3 million years.

Kauai’s lush tropical landscapes are typical of the Hawaiian islands as a whole, but this island has a special advantage as it’s also the wettest spot on earth. Mt. Waialeale receives an average of 450 inches of rain each year.

The Native Culture

European settlers discovered Kauai in 1778, but the Polynesian natives were believed to have settled the island as far back as 200 AD. However, there’s also the legend of the Menehune, who supposedly populated the island before the Polynesians settled it.

The traditional Hawaiian culture of Kauai included a strong connection to nature and the sea, as the native populations were completely dependent on these two elements for life. Fishing and seafaring were integral parts of their culture, and the Polynesians were also skilled farmers who were able to use the lush lands to grow and harvest everything from taro to pineapples — both staples of the Hawaiian diet.

Spirituality and a belief that all living things were connected was another important tenant of the native culture of Kauai. Oral traditions, storytelling, songs and hula dancing were all ways the history and traditions of the people were passed down from one generation to another.

James Cook and the Sandwich Islands

You may have heard the Hawaiian islands referred to as the “Sandwich Isles,” but you probably don’t know that it was Captain James Cook who gave Hawaii its nickname back in 1778. It was in this year that Captain Cook landed in Waimea Bay and became the first European to ever lay eyes on the Hawaiian islands. Captain Cook was sailing under the patronage of George Montagu, the 6th Earl of Sandwich, so he named his “discovery” in Montagu’s honor. You can find more about what Kauai was like before and after Captain Cook’s visit at the Kauai Museum in Lihue.

Kauai Joins the Kingdom of Hawaii

While today we recognize the Hawaiian islands as part of the same state, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Kauai was one of the last islands in the chain to come under the command of King Kamehameha in 1819. King Kamehameha was the ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and although he died later that same year, the Kingdom of Hawaii remained until 1893, when Queen Lili’uokalani surrendered to the United States.

An Important Player in the Sugar Industry

Kauai, as well as all the Hawaiian islands, played an important role in the sugar industry. Sugar was a profitable commodity in the 1800s. While Oahu was the home of the first sugar plantation owners, Kauai was where the first sugar extraction mill was built in 1835. From this time to 1900, the number of sugar cane fields grew from 50 acres to 100,000 acres. While there are no active sugar cane plantations in present-day Kauai, visitors can still see the remnants and get a chance to experience this important part of Kauai’s history by visiting sites such as the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa and the Kilohana Plantation.

Hollywood and the Hawaiian Island Chain

The Hawaiian islands are known as one of the more popular destinations for filming Hollywood blockbusters, and Kauai has a strong history as the site of several major films. It was Lois Weber who first made the decision to film in Kauai in 1933 for the film White Heat. The island’s tropical vegetation, colorful landscapes and many beaches make it an ideal backdrop for films set in exotic locations. Here are just a few of the best movies filmed in Kauai:

  • Blue Hawaii
  • King Kong
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Jurassic Park
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Avatar
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  • Jurassic World

If that’s not enough to impress you, Kauai was also the filming location for several TV shows, including the pilot episode of Gilligan’s island.


Looking Toward the Future

While it’s clear that the history of Kauai is a long and rich one, it’s also far from over. Modern Kauai relies largely on tourism, its most profitable industry. People from all over the world come to see the beauty of the Garden Island for themselves, visiting the beautiful South Shore beaches and sites like Waimea Bay Beach Park to bask in the warmth and incredible landscapes. Much of what the island has to offer is a nod to its history and heritage, with natives providing an in-depth look at how the Hawaiian culture thrived before other settlers arrived. Visitors can watch traditional hula dancing, listen to stories of the wayfaring people and find out more about Kauai’s culture of living in harmony with nature and maintaining strong familial and spiritual ties.